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Founder's Syndrome (wikipedia.org)
70 points by benjaminjosephw on May 25, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 66 comments

Much of the characteristics described are necessary for early success of a company. After all, you need at least 1 founder with a “work all day and night to keep the company alive/growing at all costs” level of devotion. Most startups won’t take off without some degree of fanatical founder behavior.

> [the syndrome causes problems] following the effective initial establishment of the project

This is easy to accept in theory. In practice, there is rarely a specific event or milestone that determines the “effective initial establishment of the project” (after which, according the the wiki article, Founderitis turns from necessary to harmful)

A lot of founders operate in survival mode (sometimes quite literally) when starting a company. Transitioning out of survival mode once the company has enough momentum and traction to be able to survive on its own is easier said than done, most often (I think) because it’s difficult for founders to identify the exact point in time where things will and can go on without them which is often years after the company was founded

Edit: Side note, why is this on Wikipedia? It would be a great blog post. But really Wikipedia?

The last link in the article kind of defends “egomaniacal” founders: https://www.businessinsider.com/entrepreneurship-startup-fou...

Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz described their ideal candidate in a single word: "egomaniacal." Founding partner Kupor said "The really successful entrepreneurs are able to willfully suspend disbelief, but then also figure out a way to not make themselves impossible to deal with."

> Side note, why is this on Wikipedia?

I think there are enough papers for the topic to be on Wikipedia, although it could do with some balance.

I've worked with founders and they're great at getting stuff off the ground and have tremendous passion.

This is the 'honeymoon' phase.

However once things start picking up and the company is becoming less and less of a startup the they can be the greatest hindrance to achieving the 'next' level as an organization. They are usually set against formality and structure, which they perceive as as impediment to attaining their vision.

This is the 'old ball and chain' phase.

Of course, this is from my direct experience.

This is a well-known phenomenon in the VC world. From the outside, it looks like evil VCs are just trying to take over the company, but often the company outgrows the founder’s comfort zone.

Many founders are successful precisely because they micromanage every detail of the product and execution, leaving no room for inefficiencies. As you said, this can be effective for getting things off the ground.

However, past a certain scale the micromanagement physically cannot work. There aren’t enough hours in a week for the CEO to have a hand in every significant decision on every team.

Good CEOs learn how to scale themselves, build trusted org structures, delegate responsibility, and focus the CEO on the things that matter most.

However, many founders just don’t enjoy this. They founded a company not because they loved sitting at the top of an org structure, delegating all of the fun work to middle managers. They liked being in the thick of it, fighting fires and calling shots. So that’s what they cling to, to the detriment of the company.

Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Having a micromanaging founder at the helm of the company extends the micromanagement to every level, with an added multiplier of the micromanager having absolute control over the company. There is no pushing back, no changing teams to escape it. You either commit to the micromanagement, or you leave the company.

Exactly, that's why I left. It was unbearable for me to see we were consistently pushing half-baked features out of the door with technical debt piling up. Also seeing your colleagues being baffled at supporting customers with new features no one has ever told them about, deployed in production.

I'm all for move fast and break things (sometimes), but this cowboy, shoot from the hip was unsustainable, we simply could not keep up with developing new features and shipping them ad-hoc with barely any support.

A lot of burnout in that org also.

Or, the founders goals were fulfilled and the founder just loses interest in developing the organisation further. The organisation has different meaning for different people, the founder might be just totally disinterested in getting the company to the "next level".

All in all, I think I’d take founder’s syndrome over many of the alternative forms of organizational disorder and dysfunction. For instance, this sounds like a much better situation than a complete lack of vision and guidance, political infighting, or a technical firm that is run by a parasitic infection of bean counters who slowly erode safety-critical practices and encourage normalization of deviance.

Sounds like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. To some extent, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

Contrast: New / outside CEO syndrome.

Any organizational design has problems. Founders tend to be better than replacements, but far from universally.

I've worked in two organizations with "Founder's Syndrome." In one, it was hyper-destructive in much the way described. In one, it lead to a lot of soft issues (we felt micromanaged), but ultimately, really good technology which won in the market.

That's why I hate these stereotypes.

> Sounds like Steve Jobs

Apple went to shit when Steve Jobs was pushed out and only recovered when he came back. This is the worst example if you want to claim that excessive founder control is a negative thing.

Chances are SJ learned a lot from that experience and returned to Apple more ready to run it. If he wasn't pushed out, it is likely he could run the company into the ground much faster than his replacements did.

I want to claim it has upsides and downsides, that each example is different, and that you need to dig into nuance of how it is done. I further want to claim that thinking about this in terms of oversimplified cliches, stereotypes, or syndromes does more harm than good. Oh... and I want to claim I dislike articles like this one on Wikipedia and its oversimplified and sometimes ill-thought-out sources which substitute cliches for figuring stuff out.

How's that for a claim?

It doesn't make for good headlines, but I think it's honest.

My take after reading Steve Job’s biography was that he was a control freak, absolutely. However he really understood what matters and had his priorities correct. He knew the iPhone really had to stand out and perceived to be 10X better than its competition. He understood the MacBook Air had to fit inside an A4 envelope. In a way he created the keynote slides in his head and then worked with a team like a maniac to a achieve the vision. Same could be said for Elon I guess.

I have worked with Founders who think they are Steve Jobs and want to control everything. It turns out, it’s really hard to prioritize. The founder CEO I worked had his hands in many departments. It would take him months to make a decision because of the sheer number of decisions. The org turned toxic because even though we knew it was the wrong decision, things went ahead. A lot of projects were “special CEO projects” to stroke his ego. PRs were pushed with “because the CEO wants it tomorrow, we’re gonna hack this in. Don’t have time for tests”.

Needless to say a competitor startup that started 5 years late captured a big part of the market.

Depending on what you mean by "shit". From employers perspective Apple was probably better place to work after Jobs left, since Jobs was pushing the employees to work insane hours and was very demanding. I would bet things were more relaxed after Jobs left in the 80's. Don't know how the culture developed after Jobs came back.

Well, he is arguing the opposite. That there are drawbacks, but bigger benefits.

I think _Ballmer_ may actually be a better example, albeit a non-typical one. He was fairly clearly unsuitable for the role and got it due to his early involvement with Microsoft; it's hard to imagine that if they'd gone out to interview CEOs and he _hadn't_ been involved early on that he'd have gotten it.

It's interesting how in open-source projects, BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) is usually not seen in a negative light, and the Wikipedia article does not list any "problems": https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benevolent_dictator_for_life

I don't think the role usually changes _that_ much as the project becomes big (and in practice if the project becomes really big the BDFL often either has a practical role change or steps down). But founding a two-person startup is so fundamentally a different thing, requiring a totally different skillset, to being the CEO of a company with thousands of people, that it's not surprising that problems are common.

I absolutely see it in a negative light. I'm often critical of Linus Torvalds (in terms of communication and behavior, not technical ability), and he's got the same cult of personality around him that many abrasive CEOs do. See also recent drama around Elm and the difficulty some have had with its maintainers.

Open source is, if anything, even more likely to suffer negative effects. And less likely to properly report or handle them, because even the bare minimum profit motive isn't there as a monitor.

(In terms of companies, by the way, Epic Systems - that is, the EHR company, not the game company - and Valve Software are two good, little-talked-about examples of this problem.)

> I'm often critical of Linus Torvalds (in terms of communication and behavior

I think that is misguided opinion. Linus is mostly correct (the opposite of Founders Syndrome). He obviously has great interpersonal skills, otherwise Linux would not hold together as a team, and it would be forked by groups within. Even his “rants” seem well reasoned and purposeful (not unguided anger), and he changed his behaviour when pressured by some of those he works with: a sign of maturity and definitely not Founder’s Syndrome (has he kept their support?). A “BDFL” maintains their position by people voting with their time and effort, and support is withdrawn if the BDFL lacks the emotional skills or technical “taste” to maintain group cohesion.

From the pro-Linus Torvalds pro-BDFL perspective, people like you being repulsed by it is actually a feature, not a bug.

This may come across as aggro, but I just mean that people culturally self-sort into the groups they vibe with the best.

> I'm often critical of Linus Torvalds (in terms of communication and behavior, not technical ability), and he's got the same cult of personality around him that many abrasive CEOs do.

The pudding is judged by its taste. To me it seems that Linus manages to crunch out great results. His communication style makes headlines and many people don't like it, but can it be proven that it actually makes the results worse? There are loads of open source projects and I'm not convinved that having superior communication style is the key to having a succesfull project.

Open source has very low barriers to a take-over.

Given how easy you can fork it, BDFLs arguably have the strongest 'consent of the ruled'.

"The founder makes all decisions, big and small, without a formal process or input from others. Decisions are made in crisis mode, with little forward planning. Staff meetings are held generally to rally the troops, get status reports, and assign tasks. There is little meaningful strategic development, or shared executive agreement on objectives with limited or a complete lack of professional development."

This is meant to sound negative, but there are a lot of upsides to this. Design by committee, analysis paralysis, lack of agility, diffusion of responsibility and many more problems plague organizations that attempt to achieve the opposite of this "cowboy approach".

For instance, "Founder's Syndrome" would apply to Apple with Steve Jobs at the helm - as opposed to IBM, which is run "by the book". Most people don't even know who runs IBM, nor do they care about IBM products.

If you have a charismatic founder, you have to ride that wave, because it's a unique opportunity. Having somebody with the ability to "rally the troops" is invaluable. You can't just hire somebody to do that for you. If you have too many concerns about this, take your money (or your labor) elsewhere, but keep in mind that "playing it safe" is risky as well.

If anyone is interested in how organizations function (or not as the case may be), I highly recommend the book "Moral Mazes" by Robert Jackall: https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Mazes-World-Corporate-Managers/...

My take on this is that this is in some sense an outcome from organizations growing too fast. Fast growth indicates that the founders has done something right. Fast growing companies wakes the interest in certain types of people who wants to be part of the growth. After a couple of years and/or first couple of failures some people start talking about how the organization needs to mature. A conflict between founders (with friends) once successful approach and people in the growing org that wants more structure/processes/transparency starts. As all problems, no answer is right, is it the right way to go the old validated successful way or the new boring/mature way? Maybe the solution lies somewhere between? I think this is one reason this type of "organizational theories" arise. I think a lot of us has seen it and wondered why it happens.

Justine Tunney wrote a post on her old blog arguing for founders' 'right to rule': https://web.archive.org/web/20151128145818/http://justinetun...

> I firmly believe that founders have a right to rule. This is because founders are the sorts of people who do not take power; they do not usurp power; and they do not inherit power. Instead, founders create their power from thin air where there was previously none. Founders are simply awesome people who make things happen; and as a result, they experience this phenomenon where power just materialises around them from the æther. It’s the truest and most noble form of power, and I feel it ought be embraced despotically.

A founder is simply a role. It's not something that occupies part of your DNA. Founders do not have some monopoly on "making things happen".

>This is because founders are the sorts of people who do not take power; they do not usurp power; and they do not inherit power.

None of this is true. I'm sure we can all think of a good text book example that refutes each point made.

Founders often have the legal right to authority in their companies, but advocating for “despotic” power is ... unsavory.

Until the 80s the rule for public companies was “one share, one vote.”

And that's how it should be.

I think the Wikipedia article would make more sense if it was title "Founder Micromanagement Syndrome."

The point isn't that founders need to be removed from their company. The point is that micromanagement doesn't scale in any system, and startups are no exception.

At some point, founders need to learn how to delegate and build an org structure that scales. They can retain power, but they can't be micromanaging every decision of every team.

> In 2014, Tunney petitioned the US government on We the People to hold a referendum asking for support to retire all government employees with full pensions, transfer administrative authority to the technology industry, and appoint Google chairman, Eric Schmidt as CEO of America.

I mean, she just seems to be bonkers, really; I wouldn't pay too much attention.

> "Hopefully, I'll live to see a day when all the muckraking progressive reporters/bloggers are sent to prisons"

I wouldn't take any advice on basically anything from this person.

I believe many people start business not for the money, but for the "King-ish side", and I can understand that perfectly. However, even as a King (i.e. especially as a King) it's important to be the first servant of the Kingdom. The king is mortal, but the Kingdom may not be.

There’s a point in every company’s trajectory where you should decide if you’re aiding in the company’s success or hindering it, and I believe this is doubly true for founders. In my personal experience, almost every startup I’ve worked in a founder was pushed out by the board or by a cofounder, voluntarily stepped down, or marginalized, and often for the better. The one case it didn’t happen, it should have.

Some companies do great with founders still in charge. (Stripe, AirBnB). Others realized their full potential after the founders stepped away (Google comes to mind). Either way, a founder should know when their time is up and think about what’s best for the organization.

I couldn't find a similar link for "failed organ transplants" of empty shell companies after the founder(s) depart.

The whole "company in name only" disease (without the heart, mind and soul of a founder) deserves its own label.

> I couldn't find a similar link for "failed organ transplants" of empty shell companies after the founder(s) depart.

False dichotomy.

Plenty of founders learn how to scale their companies and delegate to an effective management structure.

This article is about founders who cling to the micromanagement structure that works when startups are small but fails when companies grow larger.

If I was a founder I would certainly try to give to my organization “founder syndrome”. And I’d keep my company private for as much as I could :P

This is a very valid way to run a certain kind of company. If the company is kept to a certain size and scope, you can achieve a lot of success with little headaches. But, for companies that reach (or need to reach) a certain organizational size to survive, there's an upper logistical limit on how far you can take this while getting away with it. Bureaucracies, processes and mechanisms were invented out of this necessity.

Can we think of an already successful company that got better after the original founders left and the operation became managed by policies and processes?

I can't think of any. Process attempts to reduce humans into instruction following machines. Sometimes this is necessary (think safety checklists) but most of the time it squanders the very thing that makes humans special: the ability to make predictions and respond to changing circumstances.

I think most people need a lot of structure in their jobs. Building a company beyond individuals is largely formalizing a way of doing things. But, the process should take the guess work out of everything routine, and provide principles and freedom to do the tasks they are competent at.

With that said, the requirements for an early startup are completely different. It can just be a collection of great people making independent decisions.

Microsoft, if we assume (and I think for these purposes we should; he wasn't quite strictly speaking one, but he behaved like one) that Ballmer was effectively a founder.

It may be true that Ballmer wasn't a great CEO, but would you say the Microsoft today is a better company than the one Gates founded?

I could be persuaded of that, but all the great people and products seemed to have been created then.

Working in a company founded 1990, still has the Founder's Syndrome...

(Also, I kinda read "Tesla Motors" between the lines)

Contrast and compare with the butt-hurt employee effect.

Why does this crap deserve a wikipedia article?

It's just a bunch of moaning that sometimes founders have too much power inside organizations that they founded (imagine that).

I mean, I didn't know of a name for it, but... this is a known problem with some post-startups, isn't it? Like, I don't see why it _shouldn't_ have a name.

I think it could have a name, but not necessarily a Wikipedia article.

And Founder's Syndrome is a bad name imho. That rather sounds like something you'd say when somebody keeps starting businesses because they can't stop being a founder and feel like they need to tackle each and every problem they encounter.

What's described in the Wikipedia article is imho not specific to founders, it's about cult-like leadership and disproportionate power due to weird voting rights setups and different share types.

It's not _specific_ to founders, but just about all cases of it are founders (as I mention elsewhere in the thread, I think Ballmer was probably an example, but he's a bit of a special case).

Just the other day, VW's Winterkorn was accused of most of those things as well (well, maybe not of being super charismatic, but I don't think Ballmer would be considered that either, nobody would've followed him into the woods for a suicide pact).

My impression is that we'll notice it more in startups because they don't have the large and reliable power structure in place where these things don't become public, and their very nature of high-risk companies that are looking to go public puts them both more at risk for failing spectacularly and in the spot light.

I was thinking as I was reading it that it reads more like a blog post than a fact driven wikipedia article. Generalized language and some assumed knowledge. I was surprised to see all the citations.

> surprised to see all the citations.

Mostly financial news and medium articles. If you have a predetermined view, it's easy to find evidence and sources to support. The hard things is looking at a bunch of different studies and then deciding on an interpretation.

The article being there is not a problem if this is a real thing, which I believe sometimes it is. The problem is, the article is written in a sloppy and definitely non-neutral tone. With its current state, it reads more like a rage post. It is hard to eliminate bias from these kinds of articles but it seems the author didn't even give the effort to do so.

Why so hostile?

I think its less about "given" of "have" too much power and more about "choosing" go micro manage and not allowing your workers the space to be successful. How do I know? Worked for quite a few before finding a happy place.

Are you a founder by any chance?

You see, someone created an organization and then runs is as he sees fit (in fact, tries do do the best, to the limit of his abilities). Someone is displeased by the results (Oh, the horror!), and starts raging how he would improve things.

This often happens when a displeased person is working in a said organization.

> Someone is displeased by the results (Oh, the horror!)

I've heard a lot of mediocre leaders express this same sentiment and I never understand it. It's such a tacit admission of incompetence on their end. This kind of smug, apathetic, flippant response is a defense mechanism which gets in the way of confronting the real challenges and gravitational forces that conspire against successfully growing a healthy organization. You need mechanisms to grow past the Dunbar number, and they'll never work if a critical mass of the organization (including, of course, its leadership) is willing to indulge empty platitudes like this.

I'll give you a hint: who hired the displeased person working in said organization? If they aren't a good match for the organization, whose bright idea was it to hire them in the first place? If they are a good match, whose bright idea was it to create an organizational structure that doesn't set them up for success? There may be other management and executive layers present, but if and when those fail, responsibility ultimately trickles back up to the origin, the founder.

Employees are stakeholders in a company. They have the right to express displeasure when the founder "tries do do the best, to the limit of his abilities" and nevertheless creates problems and/or demonstrates they are incapable of quality leadership as the organization grows.

When I got really unhappy with the way my ex-boss ran the company he founded (including many lies and false promises he never meant to keep), I have quit and started my own company.

I imagine some employees have left my company, too, because they were unhappy with the way I ran things. However, I have never resorted to lies and making promises I never meant to keep.

I don't know how long you've been running a company, but the bar to successfully surviving is a lot higher than simply refraining from lying or breaking promises. There's a reason why the vast majority of startups have failed and continue to fail time and time again. It's hard.

But, you'll make it a lot harder on yourself if you blame it on others when they leave. It will mean that if there is a systematic problem with the company, you will have shirked responsibility of dealing with it and are putting everyone else who works at the company at risk. Is that something you're willing to do? Is rectifying it something you are equipped to do?

> I don't know how long you've been running a company

Since 2007.

Depending on the company and employee I suppose, I think you would be giving people the wrong idea to call them a stakeholder at many companies. If a company is suffering from this Founders Syndrome, most people can only hope to see the ship stay afloat, as most people aren't going to be in a position to do anything about it.

Employees have the right to express displeasure, but always makes sense to think if that really helps things or just demotivates everyone.

Sometimes the discontent seems to be more on personal level, eg. founder/owner is not happy with the employee, the employee is not happy with the founder but still stays at the organisation. Often it would just make more sense to leave for another company.

Edit: assuming here with discontent is not constructive criticism but more like general complaining without offering reasonable solutions.

Yeah Ive seen articles removed which had much more sensible content than this bullcrap.

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